Deep Habits: Pursue Clarity Before Pursuing Results


Shallow September

I track my deep work hours using a weekly tally, so I have a good sense of how my commitment to depth varies over time. A trend I’ve noticed is that my deep work rate hits a low point around this time of year.

The obvious explanation is that the start of the fall semester adds extra time constraints. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. My deep work tends to increase as the fall continues, even though my teaching commitments also increase during this period (i.e., once there are problem sets and exams to grade).

In thinking about this mystery I’ve begun to better understand a crucial but often ignored aspect of working deeply on important things: the necessity of clarity.

My Research Cycle

In my life as a distributed algorithm researcher, I experience a rapid-fire set of important research deadlines that begin in the late winter and end mid summer. If all goes well, this period clears out my research larder, leaving me, by mid-July, ready to start a new research cycle.

This reality explains why my deep work dips around this period: it’s not clear what I should be working on.

When I have a well-developed problem, and I have a sense of what the solution should look like, and I can feel that my attacks are getting closer to the core: it’s easy to obsessively accumulate hour after hour of deep thinking.

By contrast, when I have only a hazy idea for a type of problem that might be interesting, but am not sure exactly how to define it or if it’s something I can solve: it’s easy to push aside deep hours for other more concrete concerns.

In the fall, in other words, I’m rich in haziness and poor in clarity.

There’s nothing wrong with this. All projects require this haziness stage. High output rates, therefore, will force you into this stage frequently.

Prioritizing Clarity

The conclusion I’ve been developing is that I need to think more systematically about minimizing the time to get from haziness to the level of clarity that accelerates depth. In more detail, when in a period of haziness, I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that much of the time that I might usually spend on traditional deep work (concentrating without distraction on a well-defined problem) will instead be spent trying to clarify hazy ideas to a point where such depth is possible.

In my particular line of work, the following activities seem to help:

  • Agree to give a talk on the topic.
  • Go visit (or invite to visit) a collaborator to bounce around the idea.
  • Setup a (bounded) series of meetings of phone calls to see if the idea can be kneaded into something pliable.
  • Read, read, read related work and capture the notes in an annotated bib (a tip that has arguably doubled my research productivity)
  • And finally, once ready, spend a half day or so trying to write up a problem document that captures a clear description of the problem, a collection of simple results, and a list of some next results that seems promising and tractable (this is like a business plan for a research problem, and usually something I like to develop before committing to long term time investment).

The specifics of these activities will differ depending on your job. But the big idea here is that by dedicating some deep work time to seeking project clarity (when projects are hazy), you’ll end up with more quality results in the long run.

26 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Pursue Clarity Before Pursuing Results”

  1. I’m a screenwriter, and there’s nothing hazier than the embryonic stage of a script. Many, if not all, of your bullet points look as if they would be tremendously useful not just for knowledge workers, but for artists, as well.

  2. What exactly does “bib” (see fourth “activity”) mean? Could you please elaborate a little on your mentioned annotation technique?

  3. Great stuff!

    Care to elaborate on your annotated bibliography method? There are a number of ways to do this, so I’m sure your readers would be interested in the method you find most helpful.

  4. I also wish that you elaborate on your annotated bibliography method. Thank you in advance. Keep up the good work.
    Best regards
    Johan Grönlund

  5. I would be really keen to see what the structure of a “problem document” would be. I am trying to focus on problems of interest and meaning rather than be very unfocussed and just attracted by so many interesting phenoemena and emerging technologies and applications … thank you Cal.

  6. This is a great post, as usual. Just wondered if you have experimented with starting work on the next thing sooner.

    For example, instead of going from deep work on one project to a hazy idea of the next one and then finally, as soon as you gain clarity, deep work on it, what if you started clarifying that hazy idea while still working on your current top project?

    I need to get better at doing this myself, but whenever I have a clear idea of what I’m going to do next and why it’s important to me, the transition to it is smooth, even enjoyable, and the quality of work I do from the start is high.

  7. Some of this reminds me of the Transtheoretical Model of Change. People are in the soup around a particular problem. In the early stages of change, they may not even be aware there are problems with a behavior. Over time and with feedback from others, they begin to develop a clearer understanding of the problems. They envision how the would like things to be different and then (when they are ready), begin to identify some actionable options that might be feasible to try. Roy Baumeister wrote and article The Crystallization of Discontent that describes how some of the disparate pieces start to come together over time and coalesce in a solid problem – more that the sum of it’s seemingly disconnected parts. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  8. I liked very much the theme of this post, including the preamble that “It would be nice if we were all born with a clear preexisting passion.” The unavoidable fact, of course, is that we just have to put in the hours to ferret out what we’ll be passionate about, and thereby arrive at that type of work…. To take just one quote from Cal’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, where he nicely articulates The 10,000-Hour Rule, using the example of chess grand masters, noting that “Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors. The researchers discovered that the players who became grand masters spent five times more hours dedicated to serious study than those who plateaued at an intermediate level…”

    As I was reading my way down this intriguing post by Cal, I came across the comment by the reader A.I., regarding Andrew Wiles, the man who found the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. That reminded me of a memorable quote (from Andrew Wiles) that I had come across, a few years ago, in a lovely book entitled How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics (Princeton University Press), by William Byers—While I’m not a mathematician, I have a deep and abiding interest in mathematics and computer science, being a software developer 🙂

    Echoing the core idea that one just has to put in the hours, here’s that memorable quote from Wiles:

    Perhaps I can best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of a journey through a dark unexplored mansion. You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two,they are the culmination of—and couldn’t exist without—the many months of stumbling around in the dark that proceed them.

  9. I think your points apply more generally to day-to-day existence. Those who’ve not committed to a clear plan will be less sure of their next move and will tend to spend more time reviewing, and agonizing over, the outcome. And I suspect this explains why we’re not all existentialists — the certainty offered by religion was evolutionarily beneficial.

  10. Ahmad,
    That was an excellent post.At Cal have you read Jonathan Ive’s new biography book? His the Industrial Designer for Apple.You’ll see traces of deliberate practice in his life at a young age.You can his book on Amazon.

  11. Great post Cal!!! I think this also goes for periods in one’s life. There are periods of years or decades where we’re heads down doing something (career goal, raising children, etc.) and then something changes (goal accomplished, burnout, kids going off to college, tragedy, etc.) and we go into hazy periods.

    I love your tips for helping to navigate these periods. Three tips I would add for people in general are:

    1. Reconnecting with important parts of yourself that have been neglected.

    2. Exploring other interests (if you’re feeling pulled in a new direction)

    3. Listening to your inner voice. I find that when I’m in a focus period, I’m very focused on the goal and sometimes I ignore my inner voice if it doesn’t help with the goal.

  12. Nice post! As usual.

    I also am very curious about the “bib” (annotated bibliography) system.

    Could you or someone who knows what is it about please give details?

  13. Hi, Cal,
    I think we may all experience the level-off period, as is described in George Leonard’s book: Mastery. It is the time we could accumulate more energy for next upgrade. Though we may experience frustration and waste time by doing ordinary things during this period! A good plan is definitely needed.
    Inspiring reflection to me!

    Ps why couldn’t I see my post but the website says I have submitted the post???

  14. Great poster! Recently I experienced a long hazy period with my research, and finally found way out. Reading this poster recalled my journey from “empty talk” to some concrete data.
    Your suggestions are meaningful to me. And if I understand you right, these tips are more focused on organizing your minds by outputting your thoughts and learnings. After that, you could start deep working on the project.

    Yet, referring to the last one, I would like to have your comments on this:
    if you jump into an half- familiar project, and people around you are also new to this, the process to find the right reference/people is already hazy. How do you deal with this?

    Back to my recent work, my solution was to divide the problem into parts according to my knowledge on the familar part, go on with some tests also according to my familar part and luckily encounter the linkage between the familar and un-familar part and then moved on. This is not clear way and kind of learn-by-doing. I would like to improve .

    Thanks again!

    • Ericsson made a response to an entire journal issue that included work by Oswald. Summarizing the flaws over all papers, the gist of it is that they have not read his papers properly, the methods they use to falsify his theory are unsound, conclusions are faulty and they have not read relevant related work.

  15. Great post as usual. Don’t know if you were intending to be clever with the last line, “you’ll end up with more quality results in the long run.” but I think you can read it two ways and both are true:
    1. More quality results, as in a greater number of accomplishments,
    2. More quality results, as in better, higher quality.
    Figuring out which questions to ask is usually more difficult than finding the answers.

  16. The other thought I had this morning, at least from my own experience, is that the days in which I feel satisfied about what I did at work are the days in which I make progress on some deep work; writing a draft of a publication, putting together a presentation, etc. etc. The days in which I feel dissatisfied about what I did at work are generally hazy, where I’m not entirely sure what to be working on and often default to checking email too much. So getting from haziness to clarity is not only necessary for accomplishing good work, but also for feeling good about our jobs and lives.

  17. Thanks; this is a very helpful post—I find outlining issues very helpful to getting clarity on how to tackle them, sometimes by mind-mapping. I, too, would love you to tell us more about your annotated bibliographies…


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